Venice seen differently in Fiorato’s new work

Marina Fiorato visits a plagued sixteenth century city for the Venician Contract

Marina Fiorato is half Venetian and half Mancunian, which makes her sound as rare and exotic as the Murano glass which made her name, and she doesn’t disappoint. She appeared at the door of her top floor flat in West Hampstead like a Renaissance Barbie doll - all tumbling titian curls and unfeasibly long legs. It’s no surprise to learn that in an earlier life she was an actor (she met her director husband, Conrad Bennett, on the abandoned Star Wars set) She makes everyone around her (apart from her seven year old daughter, Ruby, who is as exquisite as her name) look as grey and dowdy as a London pigeon. Oh to be a fly on the playround wall on her schoolrun.

Her Venetian half comes from her father, Adelin Fiorato, now a lecturer in Italian Renaissance literature at the Sorbonne, but it was only as an adult that she really became familiar with her Italian roots - her parents split up when she was tiny so although she was born in Manchester she grew up in neighbouring Yorkshire in the dales with her mother, Barbara, and older sister, Veronica.

She studied history at Oxford then went on to do a masters in Venice and after a spell acting moved into threatrical graphics - she designed the digital scenery for We Will Rock you and designed the graphic sets for U2 and The Rolling Stones She turned to writing after her her first baby. Sacha, nine years ago, using the one day a week she had off when her husband took over the childcare reins, to write a novel in six months. The result was The Glassblower of Murano - a runaway bestseller and she’s never looked back.

Her latest book, The Venetian Contract, is set in sixteenth century Venice, a beseiged city constantly under threat of invasion by the Turks where the medieval equivalent of a suicide bomber has smuggled his plague infested but still breathing body into the city to wipe it out. It is a gruesome, gripping tale of medical courage, trust in and romance as our heroine, Feyra the savvy Turkish harem doctor comes up against Annibale Cason the moody maverick Italian plague doctor. She’s a Muslim, he’s a sceptical Catholic - they are both trapped in a plague-infested city battling pestilence, superstition and tribal loyalties - what could possibly go right?

Well plenty, after a shaky start - Marina’s prose is more florid than a Venetian footballer’s funeral at times, but stick with her - once she relaxes into her stride you’ll enjoy the ride. As historical romances go it’s more of a boil lancer than a bodice ripper - you will learn more than you really want to know about the effect of the plague on a body but it’s not gratuitous and it does help the story gallop along. Setting the tale in Venice was a stroke of genius - we all have a kind of folk memory of those weird cloaked plague doctors with their ghostly birdlike masks and Marina has a gift for bringing them to life without overdoing it. Annibale Cason, Venice’s finest plague doctor is the perfect hero - brusque, arrogant, devilishly handsome beneath his mask, and the perfect match for the feisty Feyra, the modest Turkish harem doctor who has to shed her veils and robes she wore in Constantinople to go undercover and don the figure hugging gowns of a Venetian serving wench. Despite the gore it’s all marvellous fun and Marina had a wonderful time researching and writing it. The isolation hospital which Annibale pioneers in the book is based on a real life quarantine island which became the Lazzaretto Novo and Marina took herself off their on one of her trips to Venice. “You had to catch a boat there and the only person on the island was the curator, a woman who lived there alone,” she said, adding that you just had to trust that when the time came the boat would come back to collect you.

The Venice of her first book had to come from her imagination and memory she said, but the success of that has enabled her to make the research trips she did to bring the plague hospital alive. She also had time to pick up a few souvenirs, including, a bottle of Fiorato vino. “Look!” she says, proudly showing off the label,which shows how yet another branch of the family earned their crust. “And it’s a Valpolicello which I love!” She also picked up a plague doctor’s mask which is ghostly white, full face, curlew shaped mask with a pointy beak. “They would have put red glass over the eyes,” she explains, and the doctor would have been covered from top to tail in a black hooded mask. “Can you imagine that looming over you when you were in extremis?” she asks. Don’t worry, she added, as I try to keep my distance, “It’s not an original”.

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The Venetian Contract by Marina Fiorato is published by John Murray (�6.99)